La Gioconda is no joke for the uninitiated – Review by Christopher Walker

Grange Park is always a top choice for summer opera lovers.

It combines world class singing and artistic ambition with an idyllic rural setting.

This summer is no exception, with one of its crown jewels being the rarely performed La Gioconda, writes Christopher Walker.

This is no piece for newcomers. It is long, complex, and contains many of the elements hated by critics of the art form.

High melodrama, with everything from witch burning to murder, with a dose of rape and insanity thrown in.

But it is well worth persevering for devoted enthusiasts.

The plot concerns a street singer known as La Gioconda, something of a play on words.

It roughly translates as the ‘jolly woman,’ which is clearly an ironic joke given all that the poor thing has to go through.

David Stout as Barnaba. Pictures: Marc Brenner

She and her doting blind mother are seeking to survive in renaissance Venice which is in the grip of the Inquisition.

Citizens denounce each other in anonymous letters. She is pursued by the odious spy Barnaba, who, when rebuffed, brands the mother a witch and whips up the mob to burn her.

As if that weren’t enough, La Gioconda is herself in love with the dashing Enzo Grimaldi, but he cares only for Laura, the Grand Inquisitor Alvise’s wife.

As such it is a very clever love triangle, or more accurately a love sextet. And, rarely in the opera canon, it has six major roles for each of the six voices – contralto, soprano, mezzo soprano, tenor, bass, and baritone.

For this reason, as well as the full chorus and orchestra and the sumptuous Venetian settings, it is very expensive to put on and therefore rarely performed. But that would never get in the way of Grange Park’s driving force – the dynamic Wasfi Kani.

The piece is a wonderful platform for the high-powered female voices.

Amanda Echalaz is simply outstanding as La Gioconda, booming across the Surrey hills.

La Gioconda – Pictures: Marc Brenner

Equally impressive is Elisabetta Fiorillo as her contralto mother. Both are great actresses to boot, with plenty of material. I was quite nervous for those in the way of La Gioconda’s knife.

Completing this demonstration of opera girl power is Ruxandra Donose as Laura.

A beautiful and accomplished Mezzo, who gets the best costumes.

The three men are all villains of differing degrees.

Enzo, the accomplished Joseph Calleja, spurns La Gioconda’s love, and only has eyes for another man’s wife. But at least he doesn’t attempt rape like Barnaba – the wonderfully evil David Stout.

Worst of all is Alvise (played by Marco Spotti).

In one of the most melodramatic scenes in high opera, and there are plenty, he gives a golden masked ball at his Venetian Palace, only to pull back a curtain and reveal to the horrified guests the dead body of his cheating wife.

Pictured: Amanda Echalaz as La Gioconda – Pictures: Marc Brenner

The clever set designs of Francis O’Connor conjure up everything from sailing ships to the Grand Inquisitor’s Palace, all from a handful of dust.

Particularly striking is the use of an oversized grid, which at one point was the ship’s rigging and the next became an enormous spider’s web, on which the black figures of Barnaba and Alvise crawl like the menacing killers they are.

In this age of the Twitter mob, this piece is a timely reminder of the horror of the Inquisition which had an icy grip on most of Europe and large sections of Latin America for far too long.

A time when in the perceived pursuit of good, much evil was done. Many imprisoned, or even worse.

A thought-provoking evening of high drama.



Pictured: Amanda Echalaz as La Gioconda – Pictures: Marc Brenner 






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